Prior to the general election on Nov. 6, the Fenway News published two articles by Kate Coiro on the Sept. 4 primary results.
This piece profiles Jon Santiago and Nika Elugardo, the winners from the 9th and 15th district races.
Last month in the Democratic primary, Jon Santiago and Nika Elugardo defeated longtime state representatives Byron Rushing and Jeffrey Sanchez in the 9th and 15th districts, respectively.
Santiago and Elugardo are part of a national political trend that favors underdogs. Rather than relying on pre-existing political ties, they each employed a grassroots campaign focused on connecting with voters.
“If you want to enact change, particularly in the State House, you can’t do it alone. You have to have a community behind you,” said Santiago. “There’s no better way to do that then meeting with people and engaging with them.”
Santiago and Elugardo went door to door and spoke directly with voters, rather than relying primarily on soliciting votes by mail like Rushing and Sanchez.
Loretta Dixon, a retired social worker who has lived in Mission Hill for 55 years, said that Elugardo visited her residence on three separate occasions. When Dixon wasn’t home, Elugardo left handwritten notes introducing herself and saying “sorry I missed you.”
Elugardo estimates that she knocked on 4,300 doors. For Santiago, the number was 8,000.
Alison Barnet, a writer and retired teacher and social worker who has lived in the South End for over 50 years, recalls meeting a woman whose door Santiago knocked on while canvassing. Weeks later, upon running into her again, Santiago remembered the woman’s street address.
“How could he possibly remember that? And yet, he did,” said Barnet. “He’s really friendly, he seems very competent and he’s full of energy…I don’t think the guy would be tired.”
Santiago’s energy is surprising given his tightly packed schedule — when he is not pursuing his political aspirations, Santiago is an Emergency Medical Resident at Boston Medical Center. Santiago sees politics as an extension of his work in the medical field. Often times, the cases he treats are indirect results of political issues like poverty, inadequate housing, and the opioid epidemic — all of which were common complaints during Santiago’s door to door visits.
“Until we get to these social determinants of health,” he said, “we won’t be able to make significant gains with respect to the quality of life of so many people living in Boston.”
Santiago was born in Puerto Rico (speaking Spanish proved useful when meeting voters) and grew up outside of Austin, Texas in what he describes as an underserved community. His family moved to Boston when he was in elementary school, but he attended the University of Texas at Austin as an undergraduate.
Santiago says he has always been interested in public health and politics. After college, he joined the Peace Corps, organizing sugarcane workers and immigrants in the Dominican Republic. He ultimately spent nearly five years working abroad in countries including France, Gabon, and Canada. Eventually, he returned to the the United States to get a masters in Public Health from the University of Washington in Seattle and later a medical degree from Yale.
Elugardo also spent an extensive amount of time overseas. After growing up in Ohio, she came to Boston to attend MIT and eventually studied nonprofit management at the Harvard Kennedy School. While there, she began to volunteer with a group called Women Waging Peace, which brought her to conflict areas like Rwanda, the Philippines, and Northern Ireland. Upon graduating from law school at Boston University a few years later, Elugardo was named a Public Interest Fellow and embarked on trips to India where she worked with nonprofits and religious groups to combat corruption and sex-trafficking.
Unlike Santiago, Elugardo was not interested in politics for most of her life. Despite seeing problems and possible solutions, she rarely noticed any significant changes. It was not until traveling to Rwanda, where she encountered women who had been abused by the government and responded by running for and winning public office, that Elugardo changed her attitude towards politics.
“I realized from watching these women that that viewpoint was not only overly cynical but it was a cop out,” she said. “Someone with my skills and passion was really well suited to serve.”
After the 2016 election, friends and family reached out to Elugardo via text and email encouraging her to consider public office. Eventually, she decided to run at the state level, where she aims to enact positive change in education, the environment, and housing.
While both candidates have voiced promising plans for future political change, Rich Giordano, the policy and community planning director for Fenway Community Development Corporation, is wary that they can enact change. “It’s easy for the challenger to take a bunch of positions on something,” he said. “The voter needs to be smart enough to ask how they’re going to accomplish it once they get in.”
Both candidates are running unopposed in the general election on Nov. 6.
Kate Coiro is a journalism major at Northeastern University. Read her article on resident reactions to the primary here.